cj#836-1/2> gri.c5 — re: achieving functional democracy


Richard Moore

               Globalization and the Revolutionary Imperative

                     Part II - Chapter 5 - preliminary

                     Copyright 1998 by Richard K. Moore
                       26 September 1998 - 5780 words
                            book maintained at:

Part II - Envisioning a livable world: common sense, not utopianism
Chapter 5 - Democracy: collaboration and harmonization instead of
competition and factionalism

What is democracy? -- a functional definition
Democracy is, to put it mildly, an overused word. In the parlance of
neoliberal globalization, democracy is equated with laissez-faire
capitalism, as in democratic market reforms. In more general parlance,
democracy is typically equated with multi-party elections, and for that
reason Western nations are generally referred to as democracies -- even
though citizen satisfaction is generally poor and steadily declining.

For our purposes -- envisioning a livable world -- we need a functional
definition of democracy: democracy is not a mechanism; democracy is a
result. If people generally believe that they are involved in their
society's governance, that their concerns matter, and that society is
serving their interests as well as can be expected, then that would be
strong evidence for a functioning democracy. If people are more inclined to
say that government doesn't listen to them, and avoid political
participation out of impotent apathy, that is strong evidence that democracy
is absent. Such a citizens' test would not certify very many Western nations
as being democratic.

Any formal system, whether it be elections, political parties, or
constitutions, can be corrupted and subverted. I have argued in earlier
chapters that Western democratic institutions have in fact been corrupted by
capitalism and that effective power has become concentrated in the hands of
an elite oligarchy. I further argued that Western republics were set up
intentionally to favor established wealthy interests over popular interests.
In a functional survey of modern nations, I submit, the West would show up
in the oligarchy column, not the democracy column.

In this chapter we will look more closely at Western political systems, and
try to identify why they do not lead to functional democracy. We will also
at other models of governance, ask how they pass the "citizens' test", and
see what they may have to offer us. My goal in this investigation is to
develop enough insight into the dynamics of political systems so that we can
begin to get a feeling for how robust democracy might be achieved in modern
societies. Recall from the previous chapter:

     If livable societies are to be achieved and sustained, the most
     fundamental requirement is that stable, locally-based, democratic
     governance be established. Only democracy is based on popular
     will, only stable democracy can maintain social well being in a
     dynamic society, and only locally-based democracy can adjust to
     local requirements.

Competitive factionalism -- a failed paradigm
There is a rationale for Western political systems, a theory by which they
are supposed to work and achieve a rough-and-tumble version of democracy.
The theory is that political parties will arise which represent various
popular interests, and that by choosing among those parties people will be
able to express their preferences. Competition among parties, the theory
goes, will ultimately result in government agendas which reflect majority

In looking at how these systems work in practice, it becomes clear that they
fail to live up to the theory at every single phase of their operations. The
leading parties in the West are dominated by wealthy interests, and in
recent years the policies of most major parties have converged into a single
stream: corporate globalization. Little real choice is offered to the
voters. Citizen preference itself has become generally meaningless because
public information and debate are controlled by corporate-owned media.
Elections, instead of being a way for policy priorities to be determined by
voters, have become instead a way for corporate-beholden candidates to be
sold to the electorate by sophisticated advertising campaigns. Such are the
mechanisms of oligarchic rule in a paper democracy.

There are so many things wrong with these political systems that a strong
case can be made for reform almost anywhere you want to look. There are
hundreds of citizen groups and organizations in the West pushing for reform
of media, of campaign financing, or of corporate lobbying. There are groups
pushing for proportional representation, others for minor political parties,
and others who want everyone wired into some kind of online system of
electronic "direct-democracy".

The problem with such reformist approaches is that even if they were
implemented, we would still be left with only a rough-and-tumble democracy,
a competitive democracy based on factional politics. In what follows, I will
endeavor to establish that competitive politics is itself incompatible with
functional democracy. Rather than being aberrations, the various corruptions
plaguing Western political systems are inherent in those systems.

Already in the classical Roman Republic, before Roman Emperors arose, most
of the modern Western corruptions could already be seen. Election districts
were rigged to favor wealthy interests, and huge fortunes were typically
expended in carrying out political campaigns. Roman politics evolved from
republican democracy, to oligarchy via corruption, to direct rule by an
Emperor. As we have seen in previous chapters, this same pattern is now
being played out globally, with corporate bureaucracies (IMF etc) instead of
the Emperor and his court, US and NATO elite forces instead of the Roman
Legions, and television instead of circuses.

Competitive politics, by its very nature, invites corruption. The goal of a
political party, or faction, is to win power, and politics becomes a
competition for power among societal factions. Alliances-of-convenience are
formed to achieve majorities, and a politician class arises which is skilled
at making deals and running election campaigns -- the game of politics
becomes the game of power brokering.

Wealthy interests would then be blind not to see the opportunities available
from buying into the power game, concentrated as it is in the hands of power
brokers and politicians, thereby gaining control over society's policy
agenda. A political system based on factional competition ideally suits the
purposes of the best-organized and best-funded faction, and the faction with
the best access to media: the elite oligarchy.

Even if some magical means were available by which such corruptions could be
prevented, competitive politics would still be an unsound basis for
functional democracy. If a majority can dictate policy to a minority, and
ignore the interests of that minority, then a significant portion of the
society, at any given time, is effectively disenfranchised. In a functional
democracy, people generally, not just some temporary majority, must feel
that society is responsive to their interests.

From a societal perspective, the purpose of politics is to adjudicate among
interests and to provide a mechanism by which societal decisions can be made
and societal problems solved.

In a functional democracy, the adjudication process must be inclusive; it
must involve the harmonization of interests, not the defeat of one by
another. As any modern organizational consultant will readily tell you, a
"win-lose" approach to business, or negotiations of any kind, is not as
productive as a "win-win" approach. Overall benefit is greatest when the
interests of all parties are served by an agreement or a contract. Just as
business practices provided useful models for sustainability, so do
organizational practices provide useful models for democracy: a win-win
(inclusive) approach provides the most overall benefit.

Only with an inclusive political process, which harmonizes among diverse
interests, can a functional democracy be achieved. Only then can the
societal problem-solving process take into account the interests of citizens
generally. Ultimately the goal of politics is to enable societal problem
solving. In a functional democracy the problem-solving process must be
informed by the full range of societal interests.

A profound paradigm shift occurs when you start thinking about politics as a
problem solving process rather than a power competition. Any good corporate
manager will tell you that problems are best solved when all viewpoints are
carefully listened to. Often an unpopular minority view reveals problems
that are critical to the success or failure of an endeavor. A competitive
political paradigm suppresses minority views; a problem-solving paradigm
welcomes minority participation.

The contrast between the paradigms of problem-solving and power-competition
can be best understood in microcosm, by comparing the processes of
decision-making meetings in Western politics with those in modern

The paradigm for political decision-making meetings is based on competitive
factionalism, and is embodied in Robert's famous Rules of Order. Discussion
continues, under these rules, until some faction feels that it has assembled
a majority for its side. A vote is then called, and if a majority assents,
the matter is settled and debate is ended. There is no incentive to pursue
harmonization of interests beyond that which is required to achieve a
majority block. And there is no incentive to listen to minority views at
all. The failures of Western democracy can be already seen in the process of
a typical meeting, as it might occur in a municipal council hall or on the
floor of the US Congress. The competitive system, from bottom to top -- from
meetings to elections -- is simply poor at solving societal problems. It
merely provides a forum in which factions can battle over
previously-determined partisan agendas.

The paradigm for a decision-making meeting in a modern corporation is one of
collaborative problem solving. A good manager listens to all views, attempts
to harmonize conflicts, and seeks a solution that everyone can support.
Corporations are in the end hierarchical, and the manager may make the final
decision, even if it's unpopular -- but at least he or she, if competent,
will listen to all views and seek consensus wherever achievable: that makes
for a more effective team. Important work gets done at such a meeting; human
creativity is exercised for collective goals; effective problem-solving is
accomplished in pursuit of agreed objectives.

Functional democracy, I suggest, must be based on a problem-solving paradigm
rather than on competition and factionalism. Once again, sound business
practices provide better societal models than do traditional Western
political practices. This should really be no surprise: in our capitalist
societies businesses are expected to operate effectively, while governments
are set up to be subverted.

Centralism vs. localism
Another essential flaw in Western democratic systems is centralism. By
centralism I refer to two characteristics: (1) the making of most
significant societal decisions at the center -- in the society-wide
governing body, and (2) the failure of politicians to represent the
interests of the constituencies that elected them. In Western societies,
parliaments and congresses have nearly unlimited power to make micro
decisions for all levels of society, and the elected delegates are only
nominally obligated to represent the interests of their constituencies -- in
fact delegates generally represent the interests of party politics and of
the corporate community, which dominates campaign funding.

To survive in politics, a politician must get elected. What this means in
today's world is Can the politician be sold to the constituency at election
time? Achieving an affirmative answer to this question has much more to do
with campaign funding and favorable coverage by media, than it has to do
with the voting record of the candidate. The career imperative of a
successful politician in the West is clear: serve the interests of the
oligarchy, which has unlimited funding and media access available as needed.

Both characteristics of centralism are inherently counter-democratic,
according to our functional definition. By making most decisions at the
center, popular will is diluted; no matter how conscientious the delegates
may be, they must consider problems at the society macro level, and concerns
of minor localities tend necessarily to be overlooked. And with no real
obligation to represent constituencies, there is every incentive not to be
conscientious at all, but to instead represent other interests, interests
that provide greater benefit to the political career of the delegate.

When centralism and factionalism are combined, as they are in leading
Western nations, then functional democracy becomes all but impossible. With
factions vying for power, wealthy interests busily buying influence,
political power concentrated in a central governing body, and delegates free
to support whatever policies they choose, it is little wonder that the will
of the people plays little role in societal decision making and problem
solving. One can hardly imagine a system better suited to the usurpation of
power by an elite oligarchy.

In the previous chapter, when focusing on societal feedback mechanisms, I
argued that democracy must be locally based. Unless the solutions to local
problems are agreed to locally, society lacks the feedback necessary to
sustain democracy, to pass the citizens' test. In a functional democracy, we
can assume that there must be some system of local governance which is
inclusive of all local interests, employs a collaborative approach to
problem solving, and which has considerable sovereignty over local affairs.
Such local governance eliminates one of the characteristics of centralism:
the making of most decisions on a society-wide basis.

There are, however, many problems which cannot practically be dealt with
locally. Transportation, communications, energy, allocation of scarce
resources, trade policies, finances, and others, require society-wide
problem solving, albeit with room for local variations in the implementation
of solutions, and perhaps local approval of proposed solutions. After
perhaps intermediate levels of government, there must be some kind of
society-wide governing body that has responsibility for addressing
society-wide problems.

In a functional democracy, the problem-solving approach used by this central
body must be aimed at harmonizing the wishes of the various localities, as
represented by their delegations. The delegates do not come to the central
body firmly committed to particular solutions, but rather with an informed
understanding of the desires and requirements they are bringing to the
discussion. If each delegate reliably represents their constituencies in the
central deliberations, then the consensus solutions that are arrived at are
likely to successfully harmonize the overall interests of society.

But how to assure that delegates reliably represent their constituencies? In
today's systems of democracy, delegates are selected, theoretically, on the
basis of character, judgement, experience, integrity, intelligence, good
sense, and other personality traits. When a candidate is elected, the
presumption is that the electorate trusts him or her personally to do the
right thing for the constituency. Needless to say, this system does not work
very well.

The problem is not that the wrong person might get elected in these systems,
but rather that localities are focusing on delegate selection rather than on
problem solving. In order for the locality to be represented properly in the
central body, the locality must take the time to consider what position it
wants taken to the central body for the important issues of the day. Without
local deliberations on societal issues, the delegate lacks the information
necessary to adequately represent the locality in central deliberations,
regardless of how responsible and conscientious he or she might be.

Even at the local level there are diverse interests, and no one person
embodies the knowledge and needs of the whole community. Problem solving at
the local level requires the participation of the whole community. Only by
that means can the locality even become aware of what position it wants to
be represented centrally. If the locality has no awareness of what it wants,
as a community, then how could any elected official possibly be expected to
represent its will? For this reason alone, it is no wonder that Western
societies are not democracies.

Local deliberation of society-wide issues is a necessary feedback mechanism
in a functional democracy. The local governance system, then, is concerned
with solving local problems itself, and with identifying its priorities
regarding wider issues, as its contribution to society-wide governance. The
role of a delegate in this system is clear: it is to take the local agenda
to the central body and to represent it in the deliberations. It is not the
judgement or character of the delegate which is of central importance --
although poor judgement or character would hardly be a recommendation -- but
rather that the delegate can and will represent the local agenda, as
articulated locally.

In today's democracies, people represent localities, and society-wide
policies are determined by the dynamics of centralism and factionalism; in a
functional democracy, agendas represent localities, and society-wide agendas
are harmonized from those through the collaboration of delegates. At the
local level, a community agenda is harmonized from the interests of all; at
the central level, a societal agenda is harmonized from the various local
agendas, with the process possibly repeated at intermediate levels. This is
the meaning of localism in the context of a functional democracy, and
localism eliminates the counter-democratic characteristics of centralism.